FULL DARK HOUSE by Christopher Fowler LEAD A HORSE TO MURDER by Cynthia Baxter UNZIPPED by Lois Greiman FEARFUL SYMMETRY by Morag Joss SIGNS IN THE BLOOD by Vicki Lane STUFFED by Brian Wiprud

First Chapter: LEAD A HORSE TO MURDER by Cynthia Baxter

Read an excerpt of this new Reigning Cats & Dogs mystery featuring full-time vet and part-time sleuth Jessica Popper

LEAD A HORSE TO MURDER by Cynthia Baxter

LEAD A HORSE TO MURDER by Cynthia Baxter
Fiction - Mystery & Detective - Women Sleuths | Bantam
Paperback | May 2005
$6.99 | 0-553-58643-2

Long Island veterinarian-cum-amateur sleuth Jessica Popper is back investigating a murder at a posh estate in the third heartwarming and hilarious mystery from the author of PUTTING ON THE DOG.

Chapter 1

"A horse is dangerous at both ends and uncomfortable in the middle." —Ian Fleming

My jeans and chukka boots were splattered with mud, my neck and armpits were coated in sticky sweat, I was practically choking from the pungent smell of manure trapped in the warm, humid air....

It doesn't get any better than this, I thought blissfully, closing my eyes and letting the early September sun bake a few more freckles onto my nose and cheeks. There's nothing like being around horses to make you feel grounded.

The ear-piercing sound of Max and Lou yapping their heads off snapped me out of my reverie. I turned to see what had sent my Westie and my Dalmatian, two whirling dervishes that masquerade as pets, into such a tizzy.

And then I spotted him. A few hundred yards away, a lone horseman had cantered onto one of the grassy fields that sprawled across Andrew MacKinnon's estate. The steed was a magnificent Arabian, pure white with a massive chest and long, sturdy legs. From where I stood, he looked more like something Walt Disney had conjured up than a real animal.

But it was the rider who captivated my attention. He was clearly in control of both his horse and the mallet he gripped in his hand, exhibiting a combination of power and grace that mesmerized me. His shoulders, so broad they stretched the fabric of his loose-fitting dark blue polo shirt, hinted at his incredible strength. I watched, fascinated, as he leaned forward to hit the ball, sending it flying across the field.

Even from a distance, I could see he was extraordinarily handsome. His jaw, shadowed with a coarse stubble that gave him a roguish look, was set with determination. His dark eyes blazed as they focused on the ball. Yet a few locks of thick black hair curled beneath his helmet, making him seem charmingly boyish.

Though the sight of the accomplished horseman was enthralling, I reminded myself that it wasn't the joy of spectator sports that had brought me to Heatherfield this morning. The night before, I'd received a phone call from Skip Kelly, the manager of Atherton Farm, a horse farm a few miles from my home in Joshua's Hollow.

"A friend of mine's got a horse that needs seein' to," Skip had told me. "Guy name of Andrew MacKinnon. He's over in Old Brookbury, a mile or two from the Meadowlark Polo Club. Sounds like Braveheart's got a tendon problem. But Mac's usual veterinarian is in the hospital with a broken leg. Seems one of his patients wasn't too happy with the service he was getting."

"Occupational hazard," I commented.

"Mac said he wanted the best, so naturally I thought of you. I gave him your name and number, so I figured I'd let you know they might be givin' you a call."

"Thanks, Skip," I told him sincerely. That kind of praise means a lot when it comes from someone you respect. I've known Skip for years. He's been working for Violet and Oliver Atherton since I first began making house calls with my clinic on wheels. But he's been involved with horses practically his entire life, growing up around them in Kentucky, then working on various horse farms and even a few racetracks.

"And Jessie?" Skip's voice had grown thick. "I've known Mac for years. Braveheart is his favorite horse. In fact, from what I can see, that gelding is the only animal he's ever really cared about. Take good care of him, will you?"

"Always," I assured him, not certain whether "him" meant the man or the horse.

I took special care to check my supplies and equipment before making the drive halfway across Norfolk County early that morning, wanting to be certain I arrived fully ready to treat a highly valued horse. I had a feeling Andrew MacKinnon's estate wouldn't exactly turn out to be typical of the suburban homes at which I usually made house calls. But I was completely unprepared for what I found.

I'd gotten some sense of the world I was about to enter as I maneuvered my twenty-six-foot van along Turkey Hollow Road. This entire section of Long Island's North Shore was like something out of an F. Scott Fitzgerald novel. In fact, Fitzgerald had written The Great Gatsby while living just a few miles from this very spot during the 1920's, immortalizing the flamboyant and often decadent lifestyle of the area's ridiculously well-to-do inhabitants.

In the early 1900's, some of the wealthiest individuals in the nation constructed palaces on Long Island, earning the North Shore the nickname "the Gold Coast." Frank W. Woolworth, the five-and-dime store magnate, had built a fantasy estate, Winfield, that shamelessly embraced his passion for the Egyptian occult. Teddy Roosevelt's rustic house in Oyster Bay, Sagamore Hill, became the summer White House during his two terms as president.

J.P. Morgan, William K. Vanderbilt II, and other wealthy industrialists—the Donald Trumps of their time, except with better hair—also built dream houses along the shores of Long Island Sound. Even the characters in the movie Sabrina—Audrey Hepburn and Humphrey Bogart in the original version, Julia Ormond and Harrison Ford in the remake—lived on Long Island's Gold Coast.

While the MacKinnon homestead, Heatherfield, wasn't on quite as grand a scale, it was definitely of the same ilk. Yet most people who passed along Turkey Hollow Road would never even have noticed its entrance, much less guessed that a sprawling estate lay beyond.

As I drove through the black wrought-iron gate flanked by two stone pillars, I wondered if I'd made a wrong turn. From the looks of things, I could easily have entered the grounds of a country club or even wandered into the Meadowlark Polo Club. But I'd noticed the name Heatherfield etched on a gold plaque set into one of the pillars.

"This must be the place," I muttered, glancing over at Max, my tailless Westie, and Lou, my one-eyed Dalmatian, who shared the seat beside me. Even they looked impressed. Or maybe it was just the endless stretches of green grass that had them spellbound. I could almost hear Lou thinking, Somewhere out there, there's a tennis ball with my name on it. Max, I suspected, was imagining all the squirrels and rabbits just waiting to be chased.

I had to keep my jaw from dropping to the ground as I drove along a paved road that curved through an amazing amount of land—especially given the outrageous property values on Long Island. Some of it was dense wooded areas: towering oaks and lush maples, their leaves already taking on a reddish tinge that warned that summer would soon be replaced by fall. But most of Andrew MacKinnon's estate had been divided into large, grassy paddocks. Many were empty, while a few housed a horse or two. In the distance, I noticed a brown-shingled building that looked like a stable. But on the phone, Heatherfield's barn manager had told me the stable was yellow, so I kept driving.

After nearly a quarter of a mile, I spotted an elegant stone house. Or mansion, depending on how much of a stickler for using the correct word you happen to be. Given the fact that it had enough rooms to pass for a small hotel, I suppose anyone who referred to it as a house would be guilty of understatement.

I finally caught sight of the stable. The one-story yellow building was U-shaped, a main section with two wings. I suspected it had originally been built as a carriage house.

And I was surprised that it wasn't still being used as one. So many vehicles were parked on the property that it looked like a used-car lot. A very fancy used car lot. A Cadillac and a Mercedes sat on the paved semicircle in front of the house. Another half dozen vehicles lined the long driveway. Most were parked at haphazard angles, as if they'd been discarded by drivers who didn't consider them important enough to deal with properly. I spotted two SUV's, a Hummer, and a dilapidated station wagon. There were also two horse trailers, not hitched up to anything at the moment.

But the shining star of the makeshift parking lot was definitely the red Porsche, so low to the ground that the driver could probably feel pebbles on his butt. It bore an awfully close resemblance to a snazzy model I'd recently seen in a car magazine. Nick had shown it to me while we were browsing in a bookstore, marveling over its six-figure price tag. That was considerably more than the cost of the van that served as my clinic on wheels, and the Porsche didn't even come equipped with its own X-ray machine and autoclave.

I pulled my van up and opened the door. Predictably, Max and Lou shot out, acting as if they'd just been released from two years under house arrest. They spotted a tough-looking barn cat and immediately set off in his direction, hell-bent on checking out any living, breathing creature with the audacity to venture within a quarter of a mile of where they were.

I headed toward the stable, lugging a big black bag with most of the supplies and equipment I expected I'd need to treat Andrew MacKinnon's prized horse. As soon as I entered, I sensed someone else's presence. Actually, it wasn't as much an eerie, Stephen King kind of feeling as a distinctive smell. Cigarette smoke, stinging my nostrils and making my throat raw.

"Hello?" I called. "Anyone here?"

For a few seconds, nothing. And then a man stepped out of the shadows and planted himself a foot away from my face. His creepy entrance made me wonder if he'd orchestrated the whole scene for my benefit. Not a very promising beginning, I thought with annoyance.

He stood roughly six feet tall, lanky with knobby fingers that curled around his cigarette butt. His fashion statement was Aging Cowboy: jeans and a T-shirt, worn underneath a red plaid flannel shirt. His face looked as scorched as the Arizona desert. Despite the reptilian skin, I estimated his age in the mid-forties. And he positively reeked of cigarette smoke, as if part of his daily grooming routine involved dousing himself in Eau de Marlboro.

He studied me coldly, his eyes a pale shade of hazel that contributed to his lizardlike appearance. "Who the hell are you?" he rasped.

"I'm Dr. Popper," I replied. "I got a call this morning about a horse that needs tending to."

"So you're the vet."

"That's right."

He continued to stare, as if he was waiting for me to say, "Naw, only kidding!" Instead, I stared right back.

"C'mon," he finally said, turning and heading in the opposite direction. "I'll take you to Braveheart."

"And you are...?" I asked.

"Johnny Ray Cousins," he mumbled without looking back. "Mr. Mac's barn manager. I'm the one who called you."

I drew my breath in sharply when my charming host stopped in front of a stall labeled "Braveheart." Andrew MacKinnon's gelding truly was a beautiful animal. The sleek Arabian was a deep shade of chestnut with a flowing mane, intelligent brown eyes, and a proud demeanor.

"How're you doing, boy?" I asked him in a soft voice, stroking his nose gently. And then, even though I could feel Johnny Ray's eyes burning into me, I leaned forward and nuzzled Braveheart's nose with mine. It was something I'd seen horses do with each other, so I'd adopted it as my own greeting whenever I was getting acquainted with one I was about to treat. When in Rome, I figured.

I turned back to MacKinnon's barn manager. "What's going on?"

"Looks like his tendon pulled up a little bit sore, over there on his right back leg," Johnny Ray mumbled. "Happened yesterday. Braveheart probably took a bad step, maybe hit a divot. Course, he coulda been struck with a polo mallet, but I didn't see it happen. Anyway, he stumbled, but Scott, the guy who was riding him, picked up his reins and kept playing. He told me afterward he felt a funny step, but Braveheart here is a real trouper. He went on to score the winning goal.

"After the game, we took a look at it. It was a little bit filled with fluid and there was some heat. I iced it and gave him a couple of bute, but a few hours later, it was still sore to the touch. I talked to Mr. Mac about it this morning, and he insisted we give you a call."

Johnny Ray shot me a hostile look, no doubt making sure I understood that it had been his boss's idea to summon me—not his.

"Let me take a look." I set down my bag, ready to work.

Tendon damage is a frequent occurrence in polo ponies, ranging from a simple strain or sprain to a rupture that could put the animal out of commission completely. Injuries of this sort are especially common among horses that play the game at its most demanding level. Polo requires them to run fast, then make short stops and turns—moves horses simply aren't built for. Exhaustion is another factor, along with irregularities like stones or divots, clumps of earth pulled from the ground by galloping hooves or mallets. Still, polo fields are generally well maintained, and tendon injuries usually turn out to be mild.

"Okay, boy," I said. "I'm going to take a look at you. We just want to figure out what happened."

Braveheart stood still in his stall, patiently allowing me to examine his right back leg. From what I could see, Johnny Ray's analysis was correct. It looked like the gelding's injury was a simple soft-tissue injury—no open wound, no major bone fractures. Still, I wanted to be sure.

"I'm going to do an ultrasound," I said. I opened the carrying case that contained my portable unit. The nifty device consisted of two pieces, an extension probe and a processing computer with a monitor, yet it weighed barely two pounds.

As I ran the extension probe over Braveheart's bruised tendon, I studied the screen. Sure enough, the image clearly showed a pocket of excess fluid within the superficial digital flexor tendon at the back of the horse's right leg, an indication of minor structural damage.

"Okay, I see a weak spot in the tendon," I told Johnny Ray, pointing to the screen. "I'm going to put Braveheart on anti-inflammatories, phenylbutazone and Naquasone, for a few days. Give him half a Naquasone pill and one full bute in the morning and the same at night. I'd also like you to keep up with the icing or cold-hosing during the day, but put on a mud poultice overnight to draw out the heat and get the swelling down. During the day, keep the bandage on and keep him in the stall. I'll reevaluate his condition in a few days."

Johnny Ray barely acknowledged my instructions. "Now I suppose you want to get paid," he said gruffly. "I'll take you inside to meet Mr. Mac."

Excerpted from LEAD A HORSE TO MURDER by Cynthia Baxter. Copyright © 2005 by Cynthia Baxter. Excerpted by permission of Bantam Dell, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.



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